Recently, a (very busy) freelance filmmaker friend of mine asked for some advice: “How much is too much - ” she said, “ – how do you know when to stop taking on new projects?”

When your hair starts falling out from malnutrition and overwork? When you started seeing the same vaguely familiar, shambling, hollow-eyed sleepless zombie in every mirror? When the children have gone feral and the ferrets have become childish?

Freelancers, by nature, tend to have many irons in many fires. We often have difficulty saying no to work. We jump on opportunities with glee. These are often useful traits! But how do you prevent yourself from taking on TOO much work?

How do you know when to (temporarily) stop taking on new projects?

1. A huge percentage of your current work is unfinished

Are you a “beginnings” person? Do you get all excited and hyper at the inception of a project, bored and antsy towards the middle, and despondent at the end? Do you have difficulty finishing things? Do you have drawers full of half- or undercooked projects?

Listen, we almost all have this tendency (some of us vacillate between this and dreading beginnings, which leads to procrastination. There’s no process completely devoid of dread!). But if you’re a chronic Beginner, you’re especially inclined to take on more and more projects without ever finishing one. It’s a method of avoidance, one especially prized by perfectionists.

And while the initial rush of beginning a new project is exciting, it doesn’t fill the craving for long; sooner or later, that empty-nothing-is-done feeling will come back.

Face your addiction, friend – don’t automatically jump to another project as soon as the current one gets uncomfortable.

Survey your current state of the freelance union – if you’re swamped in half-done projects, don’t take on any new work until you’ve cleared the decks a bit. Complete a few (even if they’re imperfect!) and move on. You’ll be surprised at the high a portfolio full of finished projects can provide.


Join the nation's largest group representing the new workforce (it's free!)

Become a member


2. You are unreasonably stressed out

For a couple of years, I occasionally encountered a subtle sign of overwork: panic attacks.

Yes, panic attacks! My body had to start having a shaking, gasping FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT RESPONSE as if I were being CHASED BY A TIGER in order for me to realize that hey, I miggggght want to stop worrying about work quite so much.

And I know I’m not the only one.

If your docket is already full-to-bursting, if your health is regularly suffering from overwork, if you are having outrageous physical reactions to stress – you should not take on new projects unless you can find some balance.

It’s like having an overstuffed closet; you may really want that new coat, buddy, but you’re going to have to give up a current item of clothing to fit it in. If you’re already busy and stressed out and REALLY want to take on a new project, either drop OR finish a current project to make room. Don’t just try to cram it in there.

Take care of yourself. Take care of your current workflow. Do not keep piling work upon work until you drop. Don’t rely on pure animal adrenaline to power you through; you’ll wear down your body and spirit.

Don’t wait for your body to force you to take a break. You can find a balance, but you cannot just overwork yourself into a heart attack. That is not a real solution.

3. You currently have no time for a social life / down time

When is the last time you kissed your girlfriend, Ma’am? Oh, wait – she left you five days ago. You didn’t even notice. Here’s her note, under all your uneaten meals from the Chinese place down the block; the delivery guy is the only person you’ve seen for a while. He, at least, never seems to notice that you haven’t showered.

… you get my point. If you have no time to relax, see friends or family, kiss a loved one, eat a decent meal, or get outside to see this “sun” people keep telling you about – you need to not take on new projects for a bit. Life is short; make time to enjoy it (and the fruits of all your henceforth-ceaseless labor).

You’ll be kept plenty busy finishing up your current projects; pour some of your energy into them, and some energy into Being a Human Who Enjoys Interacting with Other Humans And The World.

When you ARE ready to take on new projects again, you’ll know.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.